minichurch Spring Green Wisconsin
The Rev. Derek Miller plays guitar and leads worship at Cornerstone Church of Spring Green, Wisconsin. (RNS photo by Bob Smietana)

Why the Minichurch is the Latest Trend in American Religion

By Bob Smietana

The Rev. Derek Miller has seen the future of the church in America.

And it is small.

On a Sunday morning in early November, Miller, guitar in hand, stepped up to the microphone at Cornerstone Church of Spring Green, Wisconsin and began singing the familiar Charles Wesley hymn “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”

A handful of people scattered in the sanctuary sang along, including a church elder in the front row next to a pair of young kids tapping on tambourines. By the time all the latecomers had arrived, there were 12 people in the congregation.

Things used to be different. Five years ago, when the church was at its height, as many as 100 people would show up for Sunday service. But the 2020 election, the racial reckoning after the death of George Floyd and COVID-19 have taken their toll. On a good day, if everyone shows up, there might be 30 people.

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Services are often a one-man show. On this Sunday, Miller led the singing, preached the sermon and even handled the video for the livestream of the service, moving the camera closer to the pulpit and greeting people online before preaching. And he wrote the song the congregation sang during Communion.

“Running over, I’m grateful for your sacrifice,” he sang in a cheerful baritone. “Running over, pour your blessings through my life.”

Cornerstone is part of the fastest-growing group of congregations in America: the minichurch. According to the recently released Faith Communities Today study, half of the congregations in the United States have 65 people or fewer, while two-thirds of congregations have fewer than 100.

attendance minichurch
“Declining Median Worship Attendance among US Congregations” Graphic courtesy of Faith Communities Today

That’s a marked change from two decades earlier, when the 2000 Faith Communities Today survey found the median congregation had 137 people and fewer than half of congregations had fewer than 100 people.

“Shrinking attendance figures coupled with an increase in the number and percent of small congregations obviously indicates that a good many congregations are not growing,” the study’s authors found. “Indeed, the median rate of change between 2015 and 2020 was a negative 7%,” meaning half of all congregations declined in attendance by at least 7%.

While most congregations are small, however, most worshippers attend a larger congregation. Another prominent report, the National Congregations Study, found that while the average congregation is small — about 70 people — the majority of churchgoers are worshipping in a congregation of about 400 people.

The report reflects the reality that religious Americans are being sorted into two kinds of churches — megachurches, and minichurches like Cornerstone.

minichurch Wisconsin
The Rev. Derek Miller leads the worship service at Cornerstone Church of Spring Green, Wisconsin. (RNS photo by Bob Smietana)

Among the worshippers at Cornerstone that Sunday was Lisa McDougal, a longtime friend of Miller and his wife, Deb. McDougal said she appreciates being part of a small congregation, where relationships matter more than the spectacle of a Sunday morning.

“It’s like a house church in a really nice setting or a small group,” she said. “I’m not interested in a large congregation.”

Ryan Burge, assistant professor of sociology at Eastern Illinois University, knows about the challenges of small churches firsthand. For about a decade and a half, he’s been pastor of First Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, Illinois, a small American Baptist congregation, a job he first started while a grad student.

Small-church pastors can often be under tremendous pressure, said Burge. They are often the only person keeping things running and it’s difficult to take time off because there’s no one else to preach or lead services. And if they leave, what will happen to the church?

Still, even among small churches, there are differences.

“With 50 or 60 people, there is a buffer between you and the abyss,” he said. “When you get to 10 to 15 people, there is no buffer.”

At Real Hope Community Church in Oswego, Illinois, a Free Methodist congregation about 50 miles west of Chicago, the Rev. Jill Richardson said her congregation of about 20 people tries to focus on building close relationships and reaching out to the community.

The church recently bought its first building, a three-bedroom house near downtown Oswego, which it hopes to rehab into a meeting space for worship and community events. Richardson hopes to have a community garden as well, though the project will take awhile. 

The pastor feels like she’s right where God wants her to be.

“This is the best church I have ever been part of,” she said.

The Millers, who met at a Maranatha campus ministry while students at the University of Wisconsin, pastored a church in Madison for years before starting Cornerstone. They moved about an hour west to Spring Green, a small town that’s home to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin estate, after feeling God’s call to plant a new congregation. They hoped to build a church that had close ties to the community.

After a friend died of a heart attack during a friendly game of racquetball, Derek Miller decided to become trained as an emergency medical technician and join the town’s volunteer fire department. He now serves as the ambulance chief for the department, providing emergency care to people being transported to the hospital.

His volunteer work as an EMT — which during COVID-19 has meant providing testing and vaccinations — allows Miller to minister to the community. 

“I really think more pastors, especially those in small communities, ought to do this,” he said. “I can’t say it helped grow the church — so my recommendation would come with that caveat. But I really do think it’s a great way to pastor your community.”

Five years ago, the church’s building — formerly home to a Congregational church — burned down. Little was saved from the building but some stained glass and the church bell, which is now displayed outside the new building that stands on the same site. The fire proved a catalyst for the church. Members rallied to rebuild and neighbors donated to the cause, providing about $30,000 in assistance.

Wisconsin minichurch
Derek and Deb Miller at Cornerstone Church of Spring Green, Wisconsin. (RNS photo by Bob Smietana)

The new building, which can seat about 200 people, features a large fellowship hall where the congregation hosted community meals pre-COVID, and a modern sanctuary equipped with a pair of projectors mounted on the ceiling. The back wall, which soars more than 30 feet high, is paneled in ash board, all milled from a more than century-old tree that once stood on the property and was taken down after the fire.

Things began to fray during the Trump era. The Millers were skeptical of Donald Trump, which “didn’t go over very well,” Derek Miller said.

Things got worse in 2020 after Deb Miller, who serves on the Spring Green village board, recorded a short home video detailing why she would not vote for Trump, despite being a lifelong Republican. The video, which Deb said she “didn’t expect anyone to see,” went viral.

The pandemic put Derek Miller’s roles as pastor and EMT in conflict. He saw people with COVID-19 die in the ambulance and when he insisted on social distancing and wearing masks in church, some people objected or left.  

One saving grace for the Millers has been that they don’t rely on the church for most of their income. An IT professional, Miller ran a consultant business for years and eventually went to work for a local utility about eight years ago.

Balancing all three roles can be a challenge and the life of a small-church pastor is never easy, even in the best of times. These days, with COVID-19, polarization and the ongoing splintering of the evangelical world, Miller wonders if there’s a place for a “minichurch” like Cornerstone over the long haul. Will there be enough people who share the Millers’ conservative theological beliefs and their concerns for social issues like race and refugees — which they believe are also issues the Bible cares about — to make the church sustainable?

“That’s a small slice of people,” Miller said.

Still, he believes in the importance of small congregations. He worries that in larger congregations, it’s too easy to be a spectator or a consumer — or to feel cut off from involvement or decision-making in a church’s ministries. 

“I believe in small churches because I believe ministry belongs in the hands of regular people,” he said. 

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service. 

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10 thoughts on “Why the Minichurch is the Latest Trend in American Religion”

  1. This was a very heartening account of people living out a ministry life “in Christ”. They clearly understand the call of the Gospel – and where our identity and hope resides.

    It always comes at a cost – but the price of pandering – if not surrendering – your life, your identity, your ministry, or your organization to anything but Christ – will be the most expensive mistake one could ever make. The Miller’s courage and faithfulness to withstand the vengeful political culture that has spiritually impoverished wide swaths of the church scene in recent years is a tribute to the Miller’s maturity and vision for being about the Lord’s work.

    Where two or three are gathered, God is in our midst. God finds no limitations for Himself in such a scene, when people build on Faith, Hope, and Love.

  2. This is really refreshing. Relationships over spectacle. Ministry in the hands of regular people. Why can’t every church be like that?

  3. Personality has replaced theology (Driscoll) Numerical growth built on consumerism.The growth movement should be titled, “How to fill your church with tares.”

    Church health is not based on size. Jesus said few are actually saved (Matthew 7:23-24). He states you need to lose your life, deny yourself and take His cross. Forfeit your rights (Luke 9:23-27). Is that message in church?

    That should be the aim. Not anti-Trump stuff. The church’s call is to teach the Bible. It is wrong to platform candidates and oppose a candidates in church. The racial issue was paid for at the Cross. There is diversity in the church. Even more beautiful is that Christ indwells all races and makes all a new person in Christ. A new race, those who have Abraham’s faith.The distinction is gone and Christ is on display.

    In Bob Smietana’s articles, he platforms anti-Trump individuals. Stating with biases, masking, Covid-19, unvaccinated voter issues and etc. There are documented things with voter irregularities (2020). They impact perspectives on the election. God is sovereign and He has ordained Biden as President. Having read several articles with an anti-Trump narrative.. It creates news. Not sure how it reports the truth or restores the church. His statements if anything breeds more division.

    1. Unfortunately, the adoration of Trump within a large section of the evangelical community, which in some cases has encroached on deification, has made it the impossible-to-ignore elephant in the room over the last half-decade.

      Fortunately, this site is not an echo chamber. To complain when a small part of the coverage of the evangelical community gives voice to those who are not in lockstep with this overtly political movement is merely an effort to drown out voices that dissent from yours.

    2. “Personality has replaced theology…”
      I’d expand this a bit. It’s not one or the other. It would seem that when a pastor has both of these strengths, the average churchgoer seems to forget that integrity is the 3rd leg of that pastoral tripod. That’s where the toxicity creeps in – because the pastor is charming and technically theologically accurate from the pulpit, it’s easy to let your guard down regarding the accountability component.

  4. Interesting article. Especially the notion of relationships in a small Church. Early proto-Christianity must have had all the features of those small Churches, certainly regards authoring and sustaining faith. Maybe the large Christian educational institutions could lean into that situation, and offer up theologising that sensitively resourced those in this situation.

  5. I grew up in a small Methodist congregation which perhaps thirty to forty in attendance on a good day, and one clearly less wealthy than the one depicted in the story. We would have killed for premises as bright and new as theirs! Damp was a perennial problem, aggravated by the theft of the lead from the roof, along with worn out furniture and fittings that had long since seen better days. There was always something that needed fixing.

    We could not even afford a cleaner, so there was a cleaning rota, and even as a kid I was not exempt from having to dust the pews and vacuum the carpets when it was my parents’ turn (not that I was an enthusiastic participant!).

    Keeping a small congregation going is always a struggle, and not just for the pastor, but it can bring people together and those that survive do so because of the type of collective effort of the church family that can strengthen bonds and friendships over the years. It’s been almost 40 years since we lived there, but the friendships forged during those times still endure and we have plenty of fond memories to look back on.

  6. Like many people in America, I’ve relocated to different cities numerous times in my lifetime. I think this transience is part of the reason large churches are on the rise as smaller ones are diminishing. If you’ve ever visited a small church where you don’t know anyone, you typically stand out like a sore thumb. Most people will find this too awkward and will gravitate to a larger crowd. My best experience has been with a large church with a strong small group ministry and lots of service opportunities. It’s very hard for small churches to compete for new members in this regard.

  7. We’ve grown since Covid. In April 2020 we were having services by Zoom but by May the New Mexico governor started opening houses of worship by percentages and we were opening as this grew.
    Many people who were attending churches that continued to meet only over Zoom heard that we were meeting in person and started coming to our church.
    We’re full every Sunday. Around 400 people between two services.
    That number would be bigger but we have people that left at Covid and still have not come back and don’t go anywhere else on Sunday. They watch our service on YouTube.

  8. I am glad for small churches, but I don’t think we need to perpetuate negative stereotypes about big churches. We’ve gone to a big church for over a decade, that didn’t set out to become that, but has become a beacon in the community and so grown naturally. We put a lot of effort into making everyone feel welcome and get connected into a serve team and a small group. We even have a separate building with a more quiet and traditional service for those that prefer it (like myself). To go so far as to imply that we are not “regular people” because we have a big church is rather hurtful.

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